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World's largest radio telescope begins operations

THE world's largest radio telescope was put into use on Sunday in a mountainous region of southwest China's Guizhou Province.

Shortly after noon, in a karst valley in Pingtang County, hundreds of astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts witnessed the official launch of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope's (FAST) mission to explore space and hunt for extraterrestrial life.

Work on the nearly 1.2-billion-yuan (US$180 million) project started in 2011, 17 years after it was proposed by Chinese astronomers.

The installation of the telescope's main structure -- a 4,450-panel reflector as large as 30 football pitches -- was finished in early July.

"(The telescope) will certainly generate enthusiasm, bring people into science, and make China important in the world of science," Joseph Taylor, a Nobel Prize-winning astronomer at Princeton University, told Xinhua.

The astronomer was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1993 for discovering indirect proof of gravitational waves with the assistance of Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, home to a radio telescope that is 350 meters in diameter.

Taylor expects FAST to be a "productive" project, even if he is unsure whether any of its discoveries will lead to a Nobel Prize.

In fact, FAST has already had a good start. In a recent trial observation, it received a set of high-quality electromagnetic waves sent from a pulsar about 1,351 light-years away, said Qian Lei, an associate researcher with the National Astronomical Observation (NAO) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which built the project.

FAST's tasks include observation of pulsars as well as exploration of interstellar molecules and interstellar communication signals.

To ensure the telescope's performance, more than 8,000 locals are being resettled from their homes to make way for the project, which requires radio silence within a 5-kilometer radius. Visitors to the zone must turn off their mobile phones.

The telescope's leading engineer Wang Qiming said the telescope, designed and built by Chinese scientists, will remain the global leader for the next 10 to 20 years.

Yan Jun, head of the NAO, said China will roll out more "world-class" telescope projects in five to 10 years.


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